Predicted recurrences of mass coral mortality in the Indian Ocean

Nature. 2003 Sep 18;425(6955):294-7. doi: 10.1038/nature01987.


In 1998, more than 90% of shallow corals were killed on most Indian Ocean reefs. High sea surface temperature (SST) was a primary cause, acting directly or by interacting with other factors. Mean SSTs have been forecast to rise above the 1998 values in a few decades; however, forecast SSTs rarely flow seamlessly from historical data, or may show erroneous seasonal oscillations, precluding an accurate prediction of when lethal SSTs will recur. Differential acclimation by corals in different places complicates this further. Here I scale forecast SSTs at 33 Indian Ocean sites where most shallow corals died in 1998 (ref. 1) to identify geographical patterns in the timing of probable repeat occurrences. Reefs located 10-15 degrees south will be affected every 5 years by 2010-2025. North and south from this, dates recede in a pattern not directly related to present SSTs; paradoxically, some of the warmest sites may be affected last. Temperatures lethal to corals vary in this region by 6 degrees C, and acclimation of a modest 2 degrees C by corals could prolong their survival by nearly 100 years.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / physiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Geography
  • Indian Ocean
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Population Dynamics
  • Probability
  • Survival Rate
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors